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When did we get so cynical about a company’s motives?

By 27th January 2017 CSR No Comments

In years gone by, communities welcomed investments made by the more enlightened and philanthropic business owners of the age. Nowadays, a creeping cynicism exists where company motives are forever questioned when they fund community initiatives. What happened?

By Lee Petts

I grew up in Cottonopolis. That’s Manchester, as it’s more commonly known.

During its Industrial Revolution hey day, it became almost fashionable for Victorian mill owners there to bequeath land and community facilities like parks and gardens to the local area for the benefit of residents, many of whom would have been mill workers.

These early examples of corporate philanthropy were welcomed by society.

In Reddish, in South Manchester, Henry Houldsworth built the imposing Houldsworth Mill (which is still standing today, as you can see in this great photograph taken by Smabs Sputzer) but he also built a working men’s club, a church, a school (St Elizabeth’s) and a number of parks, as well as housing.

Fast-forward to today, and the modern day equivalent can be seen in the community benefits schemes that often accompany energy and infrastructure projects.

This Beddington waste-to-energy incinerator development is a case in point. Viridor says it will pay up to £1 million in community benefits over 25 years. Local residents opposed to the scheme, however, will no doubt see it as a ‘bribe’.

Other companies make donations to local charities, fund work in communities, and contribute to restoration schemes but are then criticised for doing so – it’s increasingly referred to as an attempt to ‘buy’ a social licence to operate.

I often wonder why that is and how we can overcome it. It seems to have accompanied a rise in opposition to globalisation, and the dominance of relatively small number of very large companies, but there’s no doubt that it’s been seeping into public perception of businesses of all shapes and sizes more generally, including British SMEs.

When people start to criticise the well-meaning endeavours of businesses, particularly in this age of social media where such criticisms can quickly go ‘viral’ online, it can have the effect of deterring those businesses from continuing to be publicly supportive of good causes. Only today, I was at a meeting where a request was made to contribute to the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline – but the idea was dismissed because of fears that it could be twisted by some sections of the community. How sad is that?

We have to recognise that businesses are just as much a part of our communities as the people that live in them; one hand washes the other. People need to earn money to live, and businesses need people to do their work and pay them in return, it’s an entirely symbiotic relationship.

I’m not quite sure how we get to a place again where businesses are trusted and valued members of society that are respected for their efforts to do good, any ideas?

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